John Dingell was a staunch defender of the auto industry, a statement that perhaps undersells the impact of a man credited with helping save the industry during its darkest days.
As the longest-serving member of Congress, Dingell, who died Thursday, had a role in shaping American life through legislative efforts involving health care, the environment and civil rights, but as a bulldog for the auto industry and its workers, the Dearborn Democrat’s efforts were both applauded and criticized.
Marick Masters, a business professor at Wayne State University and director of the Labor Studies Center, said Dingell was a champion of the auto industry because he was a champion of working people.
“He believed the auto industry was essential to building a middle class and a high quality of life for working people in Michigan and across the country,” Masters said. “That’s why he wanted to protect it to the greatest extent possible.”
The same values drove the commitment to civil rights and social justice for African-Americans, many of whom worked in the factories, said Masters, 65. “Two things that really stand out to me about John Dingell would be his commitment to people and treating people with dignity and respect regardless of their status in life.”
Kristin Dziczek, vice president of the Industry, Labor & Economics Group at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, said Dingell’s role in saving the auto industry simply can’t be overstated.
“John Dingell was instrumental to saving Chrysler and General Motors in 2009,” Dziczek said.
Very simply, Dziczek explained, too few lawmakers had factories in their districts and they didn’t understand the importance of the legislation being crafted during the Great Recession bailout. That effort provided approximately $80 billion — of which about $70 billion was recovered — for GM, Chrysler and other entities.
Allowing them to collapse, economists believed, “would have caused the entire industry to collapse and thrown the Midwest into a deep depression,” according to previous Free Press reporting.
“You needed John Dingell’s leadership in the House to get that deal done,” said Dziczek, who had known Dingell since her time as a congressional staffer in the 1990s and worked directly with him in her role at the Center for Automotive Research.
Dingell’s defense of the auto industry did not make him a beloved figure everywhere, as noted in a Wall Street Journal obituary:
“His closeness to the auto industry — some environmentalists called him ‘Dirty Dingell’ or ‘Tailpipe Johnny’ — was seen as a factor in his unceremonious removal from the (House Energy and Commerce) committee’s chair” in 2008.
Legendary consumer advocate Ralph Nader, in a 2014 Facebook post ahead of Dingell’s pending retirement from Congress, referenced Dingell’s “vigorous oversight and investigations of federal departments and agencies that were lax, riven with conflicts of interest, or mistreated whistle-blowers” but also the “darker side” to his liberal image.
“He was totally and cruelly indentured to the auto industry even though he was from an overwhelmingly safe Democratic district. More than any other lawmaker, Democratic or Republican, he fought to make sure that the auto Goliaths got their way in Congress and at the (Environmental Protection Agency) and the Department of Transportation,” according to the Nader post.
Nader said Dingell’s efforts cost the UAW tens of thousands of jobs.
“In the greatest ironies of his lengthy career, he helped mightily in sheltering the technological stagnation of Detroit’s auto barons from innovation-advancing regulation that eventually cost them massive market share to more fuel efficient and higher quality foreign imports from Germany and Japan,” Nader wrote.
Joan Claybrook, who was administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the Carter administration and is a current board member of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, described Dingell as a “tough cookie, no doubt about it.”
Claybrook said she and Dingell had a “very respectful” relationship, but they also fought.
When Dingell wanted information he often sent one of his infamous “Dingell-grams,” which might include 1,400 questions.
“He was very intent on making sure I didn’t do anything to hurt the auto industry. He viewed that as his role as a member of Congress in Dearborn and his obligation,” Claybrook said.
However, she said Dingell was not opposed to improving vehicle safety. Claybrook noted that in 2005 her organization placed an ad in the Dearborn Press & Guide thanking Dingell for his efforts on legislation to, among other things, help prevent fatal rollover crashes.
“He knew that safety was important, but he also made it clear that we had to fight to get the standards issued and had to take the industry views into consideration,” Claybrook said.
Dingell had pushed back against complaints that he was too close to the auto industry, especially through his marriage to Deborah Insley, now U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, who had work and family ties to General Motors.
“I was fighting for autoworkers long before I met Deborah,” according to a Washington Post obituary referencing comments he made to the paper in 2010. “The fact is that I am not married to the auto industry, but I am elected to represent the people of Michigan and in our part of the country. My people live and die by the success of the auto industry and manufacturing.”
Dingell’s environmental evolution
Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, said Dingell had an open mind.
“Initially, he was skeptical on environmental issues, but when he understood the severity of the threats, he embraced issues and was able to carry them through in legislation. He made the industry accept something they were reluctant to go for. Even though environmentalists may feel he didn’t go far enough, he went much further than what would’ve been expected,” Shaiken said.
Shaiken, who specializes in labor and the global economy, knew Dingell personally.
“John Dingell was a deep advocate of autoworkers and workers more generally,” Shaiken said. “He understood you had to defend the industry to protect the jobs and the livelihoods of those workers. He did it in a tireless, accessible way. He knew how to compromise and, when necessary, stand his ground.”
Most importantly, Dingell never lost touch with his roots, said Shaiken, 73, whose grandfather moved from Ohio to Detroit to earn $5 a day at Ford’s Highland Park plant and spent most of his 33 years on the line at the Rouge.
“You could find John Dingell at the UAW Local 600 Christmas party or welcoming the assembly of the Ford Fusion at the Flat Rock Assembly Plant. The appreciation of his achievements didn’t simply come in executive suites but from deep affection among union reps and workers in the plants,” Shaiken said.
John McElroy, a longtime industry analyst and host of “Autoline After Hours,” grew to know Dingell through their media appearances together.
“I’m kind of a defender of the automotive industry, too. Especially as Detroit and GM and Chrysler were going into bankruptcy,” said McElroy, who’s 65. “I was one of the lone (voices) out there going, ‘Look, we’re going to get money from Congress, restructure and come back and set sales records.’ Because I was so out there, that’s probably how John knew who I was. He had seniority and clout and gravitas, but he was very approachable.”
No one can really quantify the impact Dingell had on the lives of Michigan families and the people of America, McElroy said.
“He’s got his fingerprints on 30 or 40 years’ worth of legislation,” said McElroy, whose father worked at Ford.
He understood the industry
The Center for Automotive Research’s David Cole, 81, has known Dingell for “many years” and had a lot of interaction with him. Cole said Dingell was crucial to helping pass policy to protect the auto industry even in times of uncertainty such as when Volkswagen introduced the Beetle and Asian automakers entered the U.S. market. Both instances disrupted sales of U.S. automakers.
“He always understood the importance of the industry,” said Cole, who is chair emeritus of the Ann Arbor-based center.
For example, the economic multiplier for each job in the auto industry is 10, said Cole. That means there are nine other jobs that flow from each direct industry job. The economic multiplier for a typical job on Wall Street is only two.
“Most people are unaware that the economic multiplier in the auto industry is more than just the industry, there are a lot more jobs that are really important,” said Cole. “John was aware of that.”
So aware of it that despite being a Democrat and a UAW supporter, if Dingell saw that a UAW benefit would hurt the overall industry, he was the “voice of reason” with UAW leaders to back down, Cole said.
Dingell’s long tenure in Congress gave him a deep understanding of politics and how to work it, too, Cole said.
“The experience he developed over time and the wisdom that came with it was really important,” said Cole. “It made him really understand his role as a political leader to accomplish big things. Debbie is following on that path too.”
Dingell’s work on the Clean Air Act led to the invention of catalytic converters and a dramatic reduction in vehicle emissions, Cole said.
“It was done at a pace that the industry could meet it as automakers did research and brought this technology into play,” Cole said. “Without someone like John we would have had much more political chaos in the auto industry, in my opinion. You didn’t see him in a table-pounding discussion. He was subdued but a strong personality.”
Dave Sullivan, 39, an auto industry analyst who worked in the factory at Ford Motor Co., and in management, met Dingell many times at social events and remembers stories growing up when his father worked at Ford.
“John Dingell, while some may not have agreed with everything he stood for, he was a united voice for Detroit’s union members, salaried ranks and suppliers,” Sullivan said. “The timing and reasoning for losing his seat in 2008 came down to his stubbornness to put Detroit first, even as Detroit’s darkest days were still yet to come. Dingell put Detroit on a pedestal, ahead of the environment, and gave Detroit a voice even as the population dwindled and The Big Three’s market share shrank.”
Sullivan, now a global executive in the e-mobility industry, said, “Detroit lost their biggest advocate in D.C. this week. You didn’t have to know him personally to know what he stood for.”
08 February 2019 | Eric D. Lawrence | Detroit Free Press